I’ve been sitting on this report for several months now….
The Merneptah Stele, dated to between 1210 – 1205 BC, has long been thought to contain the earliest extra-biblical reference to “Israel.” However, there may be a reference to Israel in an artifact that is ~200 years older than Pharaoh Merneptah’s stele, but has been lying unnoticed in a museum storeroom for nearly 100 years.
University of Munich Hebrew scholar and Egyptologist, Manfred Görg, recently discovered a small granite slab in the storeroom of the Egyptian Museum of Berlin that he and a couple of colleagues argue contains a reference to Israel that predates the Merneptah Stele by ~200 years.
The 18” x 15.5” fragment is believed to have been part of a pedestal for a statue. It contains two wholly preserved and one partially preserved Egyptian “name rings.” Pharaohs would often record their exploits by listing in rows the names of all the cities or peoples they conquered. The name of the city was written in a round-edged rectangle, and above this name ring was a pictorial representation of the people of that city – consisting of a head and upper torso.
The first name ring reads “Ashkelon.” The second name ring bears the name “Canaan.” The third name ring is the one that may contain the name Israel. There is uncertainty regarding this for two reasons. First, this identification is based on a reconstruction. Enough of the name-ring remains, however, to reliably reconstruct the name.
The second reason to question whether this fragment refers to Biblical Israel is the spelling. It contains the hieroglyphic for “sh” rather than “s” as we find in the Merneptah Stele, resulting in “Ishrael” rather than “Israel.” This spelling difference has caused James Hoffmeier, an Egyptologist from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, to dismiss this as a reference to Biblical Israel. He is supported by Israeli paleographer Shmuel Ahituv.
But Görg and his two co-authors who wrote a paper in support of the identification with Biblical Israel – Peter van der veen from the university of Mainz, and Christofer Theis from the University of Heidelberg – do not think the spelling variation is enough to dismiss the likelihood that this refers to Biblical Israel. In a world without dictionaries there was often more than one way that people spelled the same word. Furthermore, spelling changes over time. Just as “honor” used to be spelled as “honour” several hundred years ago, so too the Egyptian spelling of “Israel” may have evolved over time from Ishrael to Israel.
Further support for identifying this as a reference to Biblical Israel comes from the pictorial representation of the conquered people. The man’s hair style, like the other two images, involved shoulder-length hair, headbands, and pointed beards. These are all features of West Semitic peoples. As Görg et al argue, what other group of West Semitic people (who resided in the geographical proximity of Ashkelon and Canaan) do we know of whose name even comes close to resembling “Ishrael” other than Biblical Israel? None.
Finally, a comparison of the Berlin fragment to the Merneptah Stele reveals that both refer to Ashkelon and Canaan in that order immediately before Ishrael/Israel. The order of names appears to be stylized and fixed, perhaps because of their geographical proximity to one another and in relationship to Egypt. Given the literary relationship, a strong case can be made that if the Merneptah Stele refers to Biblical Israel, so does the Berlin fragment.
Of course, even if all agree that the Berlin fragment refers to Biblical Israel, there is still the question of dating. How old is the Berlin fragment? If it post-dates the Merneptah Stele, then this discovery would further support what we already knew to be true: Biblical Israel existed as an independent nation at least by the mid 13th century BC. If it pre-dates the Merneptah Stele, however, then we would have new evidence to support the existence of national Israel prior to the 13th century BC. This would further support the case for an early rather than late date for the Exodus from Egypt. Based on the paleography and orthography of the fragment (the form of the hieroglyphics and the way the words are spelled), Israeli Egyptologist Raphael Giveon dates the inscription to 1400 BC. This is 200 years earlier than the Merneptah Stele, and only 150 years after the early dating of the Exodus (110 years after Israel entered Canaan). If Görg and his colleagues are right, this is a significant find that will help end the long debate over the origins of national Israel. We’ll have to wait and see how it all pans out.